Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thirteen Days

"For a moment the world had stood still, and now it was going around again." -Robert F. Kennedy

This quote stood out to me upon first reading it, and I found myself returning to it throughout the book. I think Robert F. Kennedy accurately captures the general emotion of the Cuban Missile Crisis in this one line at the end of a chapter. Time and again, Kennedy depicts instances where it seems that the world is standing at the edge of a cliff, almost ready to fall. Yet, through the leadership of President Kennedy, the Thirteen Days came and went. The world avoided a potentially cataclysmic set of events. In the foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., we see a part of a memo that Robert Kennedy dictated to himself. Obviously Kennedy is not impartial as the President's brother but it bears repeating. He says that there were about a dozen men involved in all of the discussions during the Thirteen Days, and if any one of six of those men were the President at the time, the world would have experienced nuclear war.

As I have before, I must acknowledge the bias of the author. In recounting the narrative of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy hardly constitutes an objective perspective. Not only is he the brother of the President, but also he is writing about himself. He has a strong motivation to portray the actions of his brother and the United States in a positive light. With that said, Kennedy does make an effort to stay in the moment of the action he's describing. He mostly tries to avoid talking about things beyond the play by play of the events during the Thirteen Days. It would be understandable if Robert Kennedy got caught up at times praising the actions of himself and his brother, but he generally avoids that, to his credit.

Going into this book, I had very limited knowledge about the Cuban Missile crisis. I often thought it was synonymous with the Bay of Pigs. With his detailed accounts of the events and circumstances of those Thirteen Days in October, Robert Kennedy swiftly ended my ignorance. A couple events stick out in my mind that show leadership qualities that John Kennedy possessed. The first is a visit from Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on October 18, 1962. Through reconnaissance missions over Cuba, the Americans had knowledge that the Soviets had missiles there and were constructing an underground stronghold. Kennedy debated with himself about whether or not to confront Gromyko about this during their meeting, but he decided against it. Gromyko claimed that Soviets were only providing assistance for Cuban agriculture and land development, while Kennedy listened incredulously. Despite his anger, Kennedy simply nodded his head and said he hoped for a peaceful resolution. When Robert came by the White House after the meeting he euphemistically said, "The President of the United States, it can be said, was displeased with the spokesman of the Soviet Union." Lesser men and leaders would have acted on this anger and berated Gromyko during the meeting or unwisely attacked the Soviet position in Cuba. Instead, President Kennedy controlled his fury and kept a clear head. He would never allow his emotion to endanger the American people or the world.
Kennedy's counterpart:
Nikita Khrushchev

The second event that I think illuminates a part of Kennedy's leadership is his meeting with Congress to discuss a course of action once they received knowledge of Soviet missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy and his advisors had come to the conclusion that a blockade, or quarantine, was the best option. During the meeting, Congressional leaders such as Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia and Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas voiced their strong, emotionally charged opinions against Kennedy. They angrily argued that a military action needed to take place and that a blockade appeared weak. Despite the sharp criticism, Kennedy remained steadfast in his view. After the meeting Robert could tell that it had taken a toll on his brother. However, President Kennedy never wavered in his convictions. A leader needs to be able to withstand criticism and do what he believes is right. Not everybody is going to agree with a leader's decisions, but if the leader tries to listen to everyone and please others, he will fail. President Kennedy consulted with those whom he trusted, came up with a decision, and stuck to his guns in the face of adversity. All leaders should make decisions in this manner.

1 comment:

  1. This is strong on the need to sort out perspective/bias in any account of brave leadership. But the key point is about withstanding criticism - so hard to do because one always feels, at least a little, that there's a sound reason for any criticism. The trick is to know when to ignore it and when to heed it. If JFK had made the wrong choice with the blockade, this would be a lesson in stubbornness and closedmindedness!